Academic Mystery Fiction Analysis


Institutions of higher learning provide the settings for many intriguing mystery and detective novels. The roots of academic mystery fiction go even deeper than those of the mystery and detective genre itself. Long before Edgar Allan Poe created what is generally regarded as the first detective story during the mid-nineteenth century and far longer before fictional crime took up residence in academia, the seventeenth century poet John Donne unwittingly explained why colleges and universities have proved so congenial to writers of mysteries. In one of his sermons Donne observed,The university is a paradise, rivers of knowledge are there, arts and sciences flow from thence. Council tables are Horti conclusi, (as it is said in the Canticles), Gardens that are walled in, and they are Fontes signati, wells that are sealed up; bottomless depths of unsearchable counsels there.

As Donne shows, academia provides an ideal setting for works of detection. The twentieth century poet W. H. Auden had more to say on this subject. In his 1948 essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” he wrote that a detective story requires a “closed society,” a demand that might be met by a closely knit geographical group, such as a village or by an occupational group, such as a theatrical troupe. Auden also insisted that the milieu of a mystery should be an “innocent society in a state of grace,” or, as he later describes it in his essay, the “Great...

(The entire section is 558 words.)

Academics as Detectives

In addition to serving as both victims and perpetrators of crime, academics make plausible detectives. However, only about one-third of the detective figures in academic mysteries are professors; the others are either private eyes or members of police forces. Kate Fansler, Amanda Cross’s fictional professor of literature, often serves as a detective in her creator’s novels. In one of those novels, she asks, “Aren’t all scholars really detectives?” In posing that question, Fansler echoes something that Marjorie Nicolson wrote in her 1929 essay “The Professor and the Detective”:After all, what essential difference is there between the technique of the detective tracking his quarry through Europe and that of the historian tracking his fact, the philosopher his idea, down the ages? . . . For, after all, scholars are, in the end, only detectives of thoughts.

Academic standing gives professor-detectives excuses to be present at the scenes of crimes, whether those locations be campuses or academic conferences, as in D. J. H. James’s Murder at the MLA (1993). Academics also have the advantage of possessing the expertise necessary to understand the motives for crimes in these settings, such as plagiarism, academic jealousy, and academic frustration.

Modern Origins of the Subgenre

Although academia offers all the elements that Auden lists as necessary for a good mystery, it is surprising that the subgenre did not emerge until the early twentieth century. However, elements of academic mysteries go back further. For example, Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin is bookish. In Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the narrator says of Dupin that “Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries.” Indeed, the narrator first meets Dupin in “an obscure library in the Rue Montmartre,” where both men are seeking “the same very rare and very remarkable volume.” Although both characters might be classified as independent scholars, Poe cannot claim parentage of the academic mystery. That honor seems to belong to Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote three stories with academic settings in 1904. In the first of these, “The Priory School,” the only son of the duke of Holdernesse vanishes from the school. Heidegger, the German master, is initially suspected of abducting the boy—or worse—until the teacher is found murdered. However, apart from supplying some of the scenes and the victims of the tale, academia plays little part in the mystery. In the last of Doyle’s three 1904 stories, “The Missing Three-Quarter,” academia is even less significant. Godfrey Staunton, a forward on the Cambridge University rugby team, vanishes on the eve of a match with Oxford, which wins the game. As in “The Priory School,” the student’s...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

The First Novels

In 1910, William Johnston published the first academic mystery novel, The Innocent Murderers, set at Graydon College in New England. In this novel, chemistry professor Josiah Hopkins disappears, as does his attractive research assistant, Ernesta Frost. Philip Sullivan, a private investigator from Boston, discovers what has happened.

Although academia seems perfectly suited as the setting for a mystery, the subgenre of academic mysteries emerged slowly. The next example that John Kramer lists in his annotated bibliography of these works did not appear for more than a decade: Carolyn Wells’s The Mystery Girl (1922). Perhaps the small number of college graduates who would have been the most likely purchasers of such stories is at least partially responsible for the dearth of titles. Moreover, most academic mysteries are written by academics, and even as late as the 1960’s, writing a popular novel could threaten university careers. Erich Segal’s best-selling romance novel Love Story (1970) is widely blamed for his not receiving tenure at Yale University despite his excellent study of the ancient Roman comedian Plautus. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, a literary scholar at Columbia University felt safer writing her mysteries under the pseudonym Amanda Cross.

During the late 1920’s and 1930’s, about one dozen college mysteries were published in England and more than thirty were published in America. The first fictional Oxford University murder occurred in 1928, in Ronald A. Knox’s Footsteps at the Lock. The next year, the university’s regius professor of Latin, a reader in French, and a philosophy tutor were all killed in Adam Broome’s The Oxford Murders. In that novel, Reggie Crofts, a former student of the fictional St. Anthony’s College, and his girlfriend, Barbara Playfair, niece of an Oxford faculty member, discover the killer, who hoped to enhance his own intellectual abilities by securing the brains of his victims.

The quintessential academic mystery of the golden age of detective fiction, perhaps of all time, is Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935). Like many other academic mysteries, it takes its title from a literary source, in this case William Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607). Sayers modeled her fictional Shrewsbury College on Oxford’s Somerville College, from which she graduated in 1914; it is the Great Good Place. Sayers chose for her epigraph the passage from John Donne’s sermons cited above, calling the...

(The entire section is 1039 words.)

Post-World War II Fiction

Post-World War II academic fiction has taken a darker view of academia. Joanne Dobson’s Quieter than Sleep (1997) aptly takes its title from a poem by the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson. The victim in this novel, Professor Randy Astin-Berger of Enfield College in Massachusetts, is killed because of his research into Dickinson. Karen Pelletier, who also teaches in the Enfield English department, is hired to help find the killer, who turns out to be another faculty member. The motive of the killing is academic: Astin-Berger’s research contradicts the murderer’s view of Dickinson. This book is typical of late twentieth century academic detective fiction in other ways as well. It is written by a female academic whose detective is, like her creator, a teacher of English. Despite the early twentieth century vogue for scientists as academic sleuths, those in the humanities, especially English teachers, have come to predominate, largely because academic mysteries are generally written by people in those disciplines.

Among the best-known writers of academic fiction during the postwar period is Amanda Cross, whose first novel appeared in 1964 (In the Last Analysis), introducing Kate Fansler, who, like her inventor, teaches at Columbia University. Like many other works in this subgenre, Cross’s Poetic Justice (1970) is modeled on Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935), even including an engagement. Cross’s vision of...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Increasingly Negative Portrayals of Academia

During the late twentieth century criticism of the academic world increased in mystery fiction. John D. MacDonald describes Nevada’s fictional State Western University as designed to cram its students through “and feed them out into corporations and the tract houses” in A Purple Place for Dying (1964). In MacDonald’s A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965) the fictional Florida Southwestern trains “ants to invent insecticides,” not thinkers. Ruth Dudley Edwards’s Matricide at St. Martha’s (1994) is another homage to Gaudy Night, but it also shows how far colleges have strayed from Sayers’s ideal, at least in fiction. In this work the Cambridge woman’s college of the title has received a...

(The entire section is 384 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

DePaolo, Rosemary. “Scholastic Skullduggery.” The Armchair Detective 21, no. 3 (Summer, 1988): 280-284. Despite its brevity, this article provides a good survey of the subgenre; discusses characters, motives, and themes.

Gottschalk, Jane. “Mystery, Murder, and Academe.” The Armchair Detective 11 (April, 1978): 159-169. Offers a taxonomy of diverse approaches to academic mysteries: those with series detectives and set on campus, those with nonseries detectives and set on campus, those with amateur academic detectives who do not necessarily function on campus, and amateur series detectives who stray from academia.


(The entire section is 243 words.)